The Monona City Council has delayed a vote on the formation of a diversity and equity committee for the second time in recent weeks.
Discussions regarding the potential formation of a city committee on racial equity began last summer following the June 2 detainment of Keonte Furdge, a Black man, by Monona police.
Furdge was held by Monona police officers in a home on Arrowhead Drive after a neighbor reported seeing a burglar in the area. Furdge was at the residence legally.
Two weeks later on June 15, the Monona city council signed a commitment of action in response to the June 2 police call. The signed and adopted document pledged the council’s commitment to investigate the incident, review the city’s police procedure, and facilitate community-wide conversations on racial bias and the city’s role in addressing those biases.
The ad-hoc committee, which is set to be mentored by representatives from the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development, would work for a period of six to seven months to determine ways in which the city can work to eradicate racial and social inequities, and ultimately determine if a permanent city committee on equity is necessary.
Formation of the committee was initially set to be voted on at the council’s March 15 meeting, but was tabled after city councilors and community members voiced concerns on the wording and timing of the proposal.
“I have particular concerns about the language that is being used in the current resolution. [It’s] vague and the only thing I see coming from the resolution is a committee,” Monona resident Ronesha Strozier wrote in public comment to the council. “The creation of a committee is not a sufficient response to this [June 2] situation. Does the city consider their work done once they create this committee?”
Similar questions were raised by local diversity and equity consultant Heidi Duss, who addressed the council as early as March 1 with concerns on the vague nature of the proposal.
“We do need a space for [marginalized] people to be able to speak, however, being as I’m seeing that a majority of the council are white individuals, I am wondering… what the council is going to be doing to acknowledge and recognize white privilege and white fragility,” Duss said. “I think it could be construed as performative allyship if we’re not careful. I want to make sure that anyone on this committee is not being tokenized… and also that the council is doing a lot of work to educate themselves.”
Jayson Chung, a Monona resident who has identified himself as Asian-American, said he’s worried about the opportunity for genuine representation the committee would provide for citizens of color, as Monona’s minority population is relatively low compared to neighboring Madison.
“I think we need to have a very focused set of expectations if such a committee were set up and I don’t think we’re there yet,” Chung said. “I think representation comes first, and if we move ahead without that, it’s just not headed in the right direction.”
City Councilor Nancy Moore, who brought the proposal to the council alongside Councilor Doug Wood, said the original verbiage of the proposal outlined that a specific percentage of the committee must be individuals of color or other marginalized citizens, but upon review, City Attorney William Cole found that language unconstitutional.
“The original intent was to say that a majority of members of this ad-hoc group are to be people of color or otherwise people traditionally marginalized,” Moore explained. “Our city attorney has reviewed that and said it’s not constitutional and that we can’t dictate that but… we can say that we’re seeking people of color or that it’s our intent to certainly encourage that to be a diverse group.”
At the first reading of the proposal on March 15 and again at the April 5 meeting, City Councilor Kristie Goforth raised concerns about the timing of the vote, saying she feels that voting on the committee so close to an election would appear disingenuous on the city’s behalf.
The 2021 election has been a contentious one in Monona, with equity and representation a big topic at candidate forums in the city council and mayoral races.
“With the timing of this very highly politically charged environment that we’re in, I don’t want it to appear at all that we’re not being genuine,” Goforth said in an interview following the meeting. “We’ve been talking about doing this since June 15, so what’s waiting a few more weeks? The optics of the timing of this make me uneasy.”
In response to reservations regarding the timing of the committee’s formation, Harry Hawkins, executive director at the Nehemiah Center, said acting sooner rather than later may be the best way to go.
“As far as timing... if nothing else, just getting the representation of the voices that you want to have gathered and talking… I think that’s a worthy enough cause to have the group and get started,” Hawkins said. “You can always change your course as you go, but it’s hard to rebuild trust if… people might misinterpret your caution as a dismissal. I think the risk of not doing something is much greater than doing something and having to change the scope as you go.”
Despite Hawkins’ encouragement to act, council members at the April 5 meeting were at odds on how and when to move forward with the committee.
After Goforth moved to table the discussion, her motion to delay the council’s vote ended in a tie, with Mayor Mary O’Connor breaking that tie and deciding to once again push the vote to a later date.
Residents can find a copy of the proposal on the city’s website under the agendas and minutes tab.